New York State Sues the Gun Industry

Today, New York became the first state to file a lawsuit against the gun industry. Thirty-two cities and counties already have filed similar lawsuits. Many of those suits claim the gun industry has been negligent in its marketing and distribution practices and flooded the market with illegal weapons. New York State, like Philadelphia and Chicago, is arguing those practices amount to a public nuisance. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports.

The New York suit is based on a simple statutory provision. Under state law, the illegal sale or possession of a handgun is explicitly defined as a public nuisance. For years, police have used this argument to seize and destroy weapons used in crimes. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer believes the state can also use that statute in its case against the gun industry.

SPITZER: They are contributing and making it possible for people to create that nuisance every day by knowingly selling more guns than they know there is a legitimate market for. Permitting straw sales to continue. Permitting their wholesalers and retailers who sell those guns into the market to make those sales.

The New York suit names nine manufacturers, three importers and twelve wholesalers. The suit does not seek monetary damages. Instead, it asks a state court to order the companies to change their behavior. For example, banning guns that are resistant to fingerprints?. Or cracking down on wholesalers who sell a high percentage of guns used in crimes.

It was Spitzer who initiated talks with gun makers over industry practices, in hopes of avoiding litigation. Smith and Wesson, the nation?s largest handgun manufacturers, agreed to make some changes. The company is not named in the New York suit. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo says the failure to get more companies to come to the table? and inaction by Congress made the New York suit inevitable. And he says it sends a message to the industry.

CUOMO: Don?t wait for the election day. Don?t wait on this Congress or a new Congress because it won?t make a difference. Because you have cities that will sue and will continue to sue. Because you have states and courageous leaders like Eliot Spitzer who will come up, step up to the plate and will sue. You have individuals who will sue. You are not going to be immunized.

But the firearms industry said the lawsuit was based on politics, not safety. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers, has sued Cuomo and Spitzer. The group claims they?re unfairly using economic pressure against companies that won?t agree to certain safety standards. Vice President Lawrence Keane says it was New York?s attorney general who walked away from negotiations.

KEANE: We were willing to work on good faith efforts. Mr. Spitzer was not because they didn?t advance his political agenda and he broke off the discussions and now has commenced litigation against us. It?s not going to drive the industry back to the negotiating table.

Last week, New York City joined more than 30 cities and counties who have filed lawsuits against the gun makers. Many of those claims are based on negligence? which can be difficult to prove. Some cities including Philadelphia and Chicago are using public nuisance claims. Some legal experts say New York State may have a strong case. But it?s still about more than whether guns are a public nuisance says law professor David Yassky of Brooklyn College. He was counsel to House Democrats on the Brady Bill.

YASSKY: The heart of the case is still can New York state show that if the gun industry does things differently, there will be a significant reduction in the number of illegal guns on the streets of New York. That?s the heart of the case, and whether you call it a public nuisance or you call it negligence is to some degree just lawyers? talk.

Yassky also believes New York can make a good case that gun makers could do more to control distribution. More than half of all guns used in crimes in New York come from out of state.

For NPR News I?m Beth Fertig in New York.